you can read part I hereWhen seeking to improve your skills with a firearm, you were probably told by a well-meaning person, or even told yourself, “Practice makes perfect.” Warning- revelation follows.
Practice does not make perfect. Practice may not even make permanent. You will only get out of your training and practice as much as you put in to practicing with an end-state in mind. Standards must be implemented and then tracked for growth to occur. And even then, if you do not religiously chart your own progress, much of the value can be lost.
That’s a bold statement, inflammatory even. Is it true? Before you brush me off, ask yourself if you know what you are capable of with your firearm. How far, how fast and on demand? If you hesitated, read on. In this second part of our two part series on firearms training, I’ll talk about the right way to implement goals and standards in your own training regimen, and break down in detail what I think the trajectory of your growth should look like, more or less.
Standards are mandatory for anything we endeavor to improve at. Without a standard, we cannot measure our progress. If you cannot measure progress, how can you determine the degree and rate of improvement? What we pay attention to grows and strengthens, what we neglect will contract and wither. This is universal to any facet of life.
Attention is active; it requires conscious, focused effort on the task at hand. When you practice at the range do you measure your group sizes? Do you time yourself for various drills or on reload speed? Do you record your results at various distances on various drills?
If you do, bravo. If not, you should be. Just like going to the gym, we must measure both our successes and failures to determine where we are on the path. If you are not recording and measuring your results, you are flailing, half-blind, striving towards an unknown goal.
It is not enough to see some improvement, say, “I’m getting better,” and leave satisfied. You should be happy about your improvement, but if you are not setting and holding yourself to a standard, you are not properly preparing for the task.
Start your practice journal today. Make notes, record drills ran, drills aced and drills failed. Jot down thoughts and questions you have. Move your goals up. In a year’s time, you’ll look back on it in wonderment, that training journal being a testament to your improvement as well as entertaining.
All you’ll need for record keeping is a notebook, pencil, and a shot timer, or shot timer app for your smart phone. Yes, a decent shot timer is pricey, around $100.00, but the measurement and function it provides for training is invaluable. Get one, doctor’s orders.
Before you decide on an arbitrary standard of proficiency, it would be smart to examine the purpose, the objective, of your training and practice. In this instance, you are not practicing to win medals by punching holes in paper; you are practicing as preparation for a fight, a serious one.
What kind of fight? A real one, a fight where your assailants (as there will likely be more than one) are probably armed, will be moving, and the time and place of the attack will be of their choosing. The fight will probably not wait for you to be in a perfect ready position with gun in hand; getting the gun swiftly into gear will be paramount. Likewise, the world’s supreme firearm is worth less than a wish if you cannot strike your attacker; shooting him where it counts is critical. Let this shape your mindset before you begin on the range.
You will have by now heard various aphorisms relating to expertise with a gun, and what element, speed or accuracy, is most important. The Great Ones that came before us have left to us their wisdom, and their sacrifices at the altar of knowledge were paid for with blood, fire and lead.
If you’ll take the time to look at their own words, past some of their zealous adherents, they will all tell you the truth. The truth is that Speed and Accuracy are both crucial to winning a fight: lightning speed is worthless if it is not in the service of accurate delivery of force. Atom-splitting precision does no good if it is brought to bear too late. They are together the bedrock of expertise with a gun, both must be practiced simultaneously.
All of your standards when you train should revolve around these two metrics: How quickly were you able to fire accurately? Other factors affect the difficulty: a target that is smaller, moving or farther away. Multiple targets. A particularly lean time standard on a difficult drill. Raising the bar is the only way you will be challenged enough to grow, but everyone started somewhere.
Like I mentioned in Part I perhaps you are a seasoned gunhand and realized you need to step your game up, or perhaps you are brand new to using a gun, “green”, and do not know how to order your practice properly for efficiency.
Below I will detail what I believe to be the most logical progression of skills to optimize the use of your time, and ammunition, on the road to mastery. My methodology is based on the idea that foundational skills are exactly that, and everything that comes after them is only in service of those basic skills. Without those basic, elemental skills, your outcomes will rely more on chance or providence than ability.
Note other trainers may have a different approach or opinion, and that’s fine. They arrived at their beliefs by a different way, and there are many roads to success, and you’ll rarely get there by stopping to argue with passersby. Keep an open mind to those who have something to teach you. Just understand that, once again, some will only help you by giving you an example of what not to do.
If you have not already, read Part I of this series for a broad overview of how one should progress through formalized training and education, and how to qualify a potential teacher, or source of information. This article is a detailed breakdown of the individual competencies that make a proficient shooter.
Note that the following competencies will be listed in ascending order, generally, meaning that one should have a firm grasp of the former before starting to implement the latter into practice or training, and are applicable to practice with pistols, rifles and shotguns.
As you read the following list of competencies and description of where it fits into a shooter’s development, take a moment and give yourself an honest assessment of your own skills: do you have a standard? If not, do you have someone to compare yourself against? Do you ever fail or flub your self-appointed objectives on the range? If the answer is no to all of these, you are probably not growing very much as a shooter from your practice.
Before you proceed, it may ease a few difficulties down the line if you know which of your eyes is dominant. If you already know, it is hopefully the same as your dominant hand. If not, it may cause you difficulty when using a long gun, as you will not be able to efficiently pick up the sights when the gun is mounted on your dominant side, owing to the dominant eye being on the opposite side of your head.
Pistols present little difficulty in this regard as the amount of movement needed to reposition the pistol in front of the dominant eye is minimal, with either hand, and there is no stock to interfere. I will include a link below for a simple, reliable exercise to help determine your eye dominance if you are unsure.
This is the core skill absolute. If you do not, or cannot handle your guns safely at a near automatic level, you should go no further until it is so thoroughly engrained into your demeanor as to be second-nature.
Guns are positively deadly, and the slightest lapse in concentration or “innocent” mistake can mean death or permanent disfigurement for you, or someone else. At best, a negligent discharge can result in expensive and embarrassing property damage. I have listed this as a skill because it is, in that it must be practiced, refined, and improved.
No one picks up a gun and is intuitively safe with it. This is true of even old veterans and grandmaster-level competitors. The two greatest threats pertaining to safety are what I call the Twin Snakes: Ignorance and Complacency. Either one can invoke disaster. Ignorance may or may not be forgivable. A small child or untrained person does not know any better. You won’t have that excuse.
Ignorance comes in many guises, but Complacency is known only to the experienced. Complacency means in essence, that you know better, but did not do better. Complacency whispers, “I have been doing this so long, I am so good, I won’t make a mistake,” or, “I am just going to do a few practice draws. I don’t need to unload my pistol.” Do not give in to such hubris.
From the moment before you touch a gun to the moment after you put it away, engrave safe procedure in the forefront of your thought. You are worse than useless if you are a greater danger to yourself and others with your guns.
Remember the prime gun safety rules:
- Always handle a gun as if it is loaded.
- Keep your finger off of the trigger and outside the trigger guard until you have decided to fire.
- Never let the muzzle point at anything you are not willing to destroy. This includes your body.
- Know your target, your target’s background and your target’s foreground. (What will stop a round and what won’t? What is behind the target? What may come between me and the target?)
These rules are not just for the benefit of novices. Every shooter, greenhorn, grandmaster and professional alike must adhere to and practice them, be it on the range or in a shootout in some dusty corner of the world.
Read more about gun safety here.
Marksmanship is best defined as the ability to hit a target, accurately, and on demand. To accomplish this, you should master the fundamentals of marksmanship: grip, stance, breath control, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control and follow through. Work them till you can stack a nice, tight group at 25 yards, minimum, and your goal should be a solid group on demand at 50 yards.
It is all too easy in our age of instant gratification to want to breeze past working the boring bulls-eye basics, and get to something more exciting and Instagram-worthy. Such a choice would only cheat you, as Accuracy, as discussed above, is critical.
You will not be able to miss quickly enough to win a fight, and many a bad guy that has ever been on the receiving end of accurate fire, and survived, will tell you just how withering an effect it had on his plans for the intended victim. Included in this skill is the Presentation, or bringing the gun from your ready position to the target.
Everyone you see in any capacity that is shooting quickly and landing accurate hits is still applying the fundamentals above. They may be applying them very quickly, and in tough conditions, but applying them they are, and their easy expertise is the fruit of long and comparatively dull bulls-eye practice.
Don’t neglect it, and refine it at least once a session. Once you are reliable on a given distance or accuracy standard, make it harder: add a time constraint, or make your target smaller. Always think “growth.”
It is here that you may choose to start practicing with your pistol with only one hand, both dominant and non-dominant hands (typically referred to as shooting and support hands, respectively). Most shooters will not be proficient shooting one handed, but you should attain skill and confidence with either.
You may be forced to use one hand or the other die to injury, a wound, or simply having the other hand occupied with a task, like holding a phone, flashlight or a child. One-handed manipulations, including malfunction reduction and reloading should be practiced alongside two-handed repetitions.
Shoot the same drills you would normally with two-hands using only one. You will probably door poorly at first. If you are absolutely bombing on a given drill, reduce the difficulty by moving the target closer or easing the par time until you can shoot it cleanly, then try again at your “usual” standard.
The Draw, Reloads and Malfunction Reduction
These are the skills that get the gun running, and keep it running. The draw, for handguns, or unslinging a long gun, is essential to get the gun into your hands quickly where you can do work with it. If the gun never leaves the holster in time, or stays on your shoulder, it is useless. If you carry concealed, after obtaining safety and fluency drawing when unconcealed, you should switch to drawing from concealment using the typical type of apparel you would wear when carrying. This will add a considerable amount of complexity to the draw, but it must be done. The focus on the draw should be speed and consistency.
Make sure you do not allow your trigger finger to enter the trigger guard on the draw, and never, ever be in a hurry to reholster. Yes, the no-look, speedy reholster looks sexy as can be on social media, but the chances of a shooter fumbling that particular movement is high, resulting in a negligent discharge, aka a “crash on landing.” This will be doubly true after a real fight.
When you reholster, take the time to look at the holster, and ensure the mouth is clear of any obstructions or debris that may enter the trigger guard and actuate the trigger. Things like coat pulls and excess fabric from a garment are notorious for this, to say nothing of trigger fingers.
If you are using a hammer-fired pistol, place the shooting hand thumb on top of the hammer firmly as you reholster. This simple procedure will let you know if anything is impinging on the trigger, as you will feel the hammer move against your thumb with a double-action gun, or your thumb will prevent the hammer from falling home with a single-action, preventing a discharge.
You should practice reloads whenever possible, and always with deliberation. Do not perform a “range reload”, where one sets the gun down after a drill to check their target, or fiddle with sights, or jaw-jack with a neighbor, and then leisurely reload the gun for the next string: when the gun goes empty, treat it as the emergency it is and reload it quickly. Reloading an empty gun with speed when it is empty is known as a “speed” or “emergency” reload. This must be done properly so as to not induce a malfunction.
You should also spend a little practice a reload with retention, sometimes called a “tactical” reload. This is typically done to exchange the partially expended magazine in the gun for a fully loaded one while re-stowing the partial magazine on your person for later use.
It is my opinion that this skill is given too much attention and training time, and you should be focusing predominately on practicing speed reloads. Like your pistol, your reloads, if carried concealed, should also be produced from concealment when practicing.
Malfunction reduction must be practiced at this phase, and done so on purpose, typically after being deliberately setup or induced; modern guns and ammo are very reliable, and if you wait until one occurs naturally you will not get in much malfunction practice!
Describing and detailing the various types of malfunctions for different guns, and how to set them up for practice is beyond the scope of this article, but you should be practicing reducing and clearing the various types of malfunctions depending on how they manifest in your particular firearms.
You should always handle a live malfunction or malfunction drill with urgency when practicing, the only exception being a suspected squib, or a bullet lodged in the bore, which should halt the drill and be cleared carefully. The consequences of shooting behind a squib are severe, and include a destroyed gun at best and likely injury.
A note on terminology: “malfunction” or “stoppage” is the correct term for a mechanical failure of the normal cycle of operations in a gun, be it naturally occurring or user induced. “Jam” is a slang term, and generally frowned upon.
Movement and Positions
Once the proceeding skills are all firmly under your belt, it is time to start implementing movement to your practice. Moving in response to a sudden threat, to take better advantage of cover, or open up a safe line of fire, all of these are different reasons to move and are practiced slightly differently.
Note that anything you have done before this point, to include drawing, firing, and reloading you should work toward being able to accomplish on the move. This is not to say you will always be moving when you fire or reload, but moving should not be hindrance if the situation calls for it.
Positions should be included based on their efficacy at taking advantage of cover and concealment or because it is one assumed either to find a clear line of fire or because you happened to find yourself in it at the opening of an attack. Positions can include “traditional” ones like kneeling, and prone, or more esoteric ones such as “urban prone” (lying on side), supine (lying on back), sitting in a chair at a desk or in a vehicle or squatting.
Practice assuming, firing in and leaving a position separately, and make sure you pay particular attention to keeping your gun pointed in a safe direction while doing so, as many are very unnatural at first.
You should begin now, if you have not already in previous training start to incorporate practice on multiple targets, and moving targets if at all possible. Multiple targets could be something as rudimentary as several bulls-eyes on a target, thus forcing you to move the gun and reacquire your sights, scattered, unique, silhouettes or shapes, forcing a level of discernment and judgment into the firing process.
Not all targets are suited for all practice objectives, and should be selected based on your desired improvement for the training day.
One of the best ways to test your combined movement and positional skills is in a course of fire during a action competition or training class. A typical course of fire will require a student to move to and through various stations that call for different positioning to make a shot.
Doing so under both time and accuracy standards will test your mettle, and overall competency. Even simple drills, easily arranged for practice, like starting supine, simulating a knockdown, then firing, recovering to kneeling and firing, and then standing and firing on the move, require little ammo or setup and pay dividends.
Low-Light Training and Flashlight Usage
The chances that you will need to use your gun in conditions of low or no light are high. As such, you must place high priority on utilizing a handheld or weapon-mounted light in conjunction with your firearm. This is not as simple as merely switching on a light and blasting away.
Proper practice will include drawing the light with the pistol, various positions for holding a handheld light alone or with the gun and safe searching techniques. Techniques with a WML will include activation, and using the weapon-light for searching or illumination safely. Note that there may very well be room for both in your EDC setup, but if you only train with one, make it a handheld light.
Low-light theory and best procedures is a dissertation all by itself. Light is necessary to see and positively ID a threat in dark conditions, and a great benefit, but brings with it drawbacks.
Our assailants will also be able to see the light, and used clumsily, it may telegraph our movements, give away or even illuminate our position to return fire.
Do not be surprised at how badly degraded your overall accuracy and coordination will be when trying to manage a flashlight beam with one hand and pistol with the other. It is easy for the wheels to pop off here.
A WML will greatly simplify getting illumination where you need to shoot, while still allowing you to shoot accurately, but comes with drawbacks, like increased size and bulk of the pistol, and the likelihood of covering someone with the muzzle before a decision to fire has been made when searching with it.
This was a tough set of skills to place in the hierarchy, as one could make a great case for introducing it earlier given its importance to overall readiness. That is a fair argument, and I would not fault anyone for practicing flashlight usage starting earlier, after one is comfortable with the draw and reloads.
Going Beyond and Supplemental Skills
After attaining fluency in all of the above skills, one may look beyond to start honing such skills as close-quarters fighting, to include grappling with the gun, defending against weapon takeaways and perhaps using a knife in conjunction with the gun, typically in support of halting a gun grab.
Empty-hand skills are vital to disengage from an assailant and gain the necessary distance to get your gun into gear. Force-on-Force training with paint-marking simulator guns is, again, positively invaluable for testing all of your skills holistically, and done properly, nothing shy of an actual attack will even come close on stress or exertion for a trainee.
I am an advocate of mastering a gun, or two, at a time, and not spending money on a collection or wasting time chasing the latest hot-rod gadget in lieu of training and practice.
That being said, a well-rounded shooter is expected to be passable to fluent on a variety of weapons, and once you are competent with your issue or personal gun, there is merit in learning on other, common makes of firearms.
You never know if you will be afforded the opportunity to make use of a “battlefield pickup” or a friend’s or relative’s guns. The ability to do well with the tools at hand is valuable indeed.
Modern firearms are supremely durable and reliable, but they are still machines and can still break, or components will simply wear out from use and need replacement. The average owner can easily strip and clean his gun, but replacing any part other than a major component group will require a higher degree of specialist knowledge, and a specific tool or two.
Being able to diagnose and repair common breakages or chronic malfunctions in a gun will go a long way toward reducing reliance on others and also developing confidence in both the gun itself, and your abilities. With enough expertise and experience, you will begin to notice the subtle changes in operation of a particular gun that may betray a part about to fail.
This is a sort of sixth-sense not unlike an automotive technician knowing the “moans and groans” of a car, and discerning what attention it may require before a roadside breakdown occurs.
Growth is what separates great shooters from the merely competent. Mastery and perfection are always around the next bend in the road; we constantly strive for it, but will never truly obtain it if we keep out attitudes in the right place. To unlock the growth we want, we must try, and often fail.
Our standards should be just out of reach, forcing us to stretch and change and adapt to reach them. Just like anything else. There is no magic to it. It is putting in work, paying attention to the results, and then stretching for the next milestone. With a little forethought, you will find that even intermittent practice can yield great increases in your abilities.
That concludes my two part series on firearms training. I do hope you enjoyed it, but more importantly, learned where you are now heading on your road to excellence with the gun, or at least identified a weak point in your personal skillset that could use some polish. Have you signed up for any training? What are your favorite drills when at the practice range? Let us know in the comments below!
#1. Eye Dominance explanation and self-test with Chris Cheng:
#2. Improving Shooting Accuracy with Brian Morris, Green Beret